War on the Wheels

War on the Wheels
The story of the people

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

For B.F.s!

On the outbreak of war, many Bedford trucks were taken over from their owners for army purposes. Few of these came with the relevant handbook and so these had to be supplied.

For Vauxhall, a variation on the theme appeared in the form of a book called simply ‘For B.F.’s. It seems that the manufactures became sick and tired of soldiers making the same mistakes time and again. The book, illustrated by Douglas of Punch, became famous worldwide, was translated into several languages and much was reproduced verbatim by the Americans in an instruction book dealing with armoured vehicles.


Friday, 20 February 2015

OVERLORD in contrast with the BEF


"It would be hard to find a greater contrast between OVERLORD and the move of the BEF to France in September 9139 when the RAOC base installations in support of the Army had been manned by a scratch collection of civilians in uniform with only a handful of regulars to guide them"
Brigadier A.H. Fernyhough

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Mobilisation

The time came at 11.00am on Sunday 3 September 1939, when war was declared.

Bill Williams, now Deputy Director of Ordnance Services (MT) at the War Office, went to Chilwell that morning to lead a group of senior serving officers meeting, possibly for the first time, the newly called up members of the Army Officers Emergency Reserve. These included Reddy Readman who would take over as Chief Ordnance Officer at Chilwell, Bob Hiam, who would command the depot at Old Dalby, Robby Robinson, who would command the depot at Sinfin Lane, Derby, and Dan Warren who would take a lead role in scaling, the dark art of estimating the quantity of stores needed for battle.

Also on that Sunday in Birmingham the executives of the Nuffield Motor Company met to put into action the plans they had prepared for war. Through the various parts of the Nuffield Group it would over the next five year contribute aircraft and weapon production in addition to a great many vehicles. It is probably true to say that elsewhere in Britain similar gatherings were taking place. Nevertheless much of the country would soon return to a certain normality, for example, the motor companies still brought out new cars for the growing market.


Mobilisation had been ordered on Friday, 1 September and, at the RAOC’s new Headquarters at Hilsea near Portsmouth, took the Corps by surprise simply because of the sheer numbers (6,000) who had volunteered and been allocated for Ordnance work. This needs to be set in context. At the point when the nation went to war, the total strength of the whole RAOC at home and abroad was 727 officers and 5,292 soldiers. Indeed, the War Office estimate of the likely number of recruits had been only a misleadingly precise 237 men. The huge influx initially overwhelmed the small recruitment team, but it also necessitated the taking over of every school building in north Portsmouth and Cosham. The NAAFI was quite unable to cope; it was only the absence of rationing and local purchasing that saved the day. At Hilsea, there was neither enough space, nor uniforms, nor equipment. To compound the problem, the Corps was responsible for supplying not only itself but the army as a whole. In time things began to settle, but it was very much ‘make do and mend’.

Sunday, 8 February 2015


 Images from some of the RAOC depots in WWII. Find some more on Pinterest

ATS in RAOC repair workshops before the time of REME
Packing at the former pickle factory at Branston
Tanks ready for shipment at Chilwell

Saturday, 7 February 2015

The loss of the Lancastria

Many Ordnance men were evacuated at Dunkirk, but many too became prisoners of war.

The position with the Nantes depot was a little different, since from the time of the first withdrawal Colonel Palmer had been sending valuable warlike stores back over the channel. Given its position a good way from the German advance there was more time for an orderly evacuation. Tragically an even greater disaster awaited. 

On 17 June some 6,000 soldiers and airmen, including the remaining 200 Ordnance personnel, boarded SS Lancastria, a 17,000 ton former Cunard Liner. Just as it was heading out to sea, Stuckas struck and it sank within fifteen minutes with the loss of 2,000 lives including 50 Ordnance men. Tragic though this was, the greater loss was of RAF Ground Crew who had boarded first and who were ‘crammed like sardines’ under deck. Jack Lumsden survived by jumping into the sea and swimming free. He went on to serve at Chilwell, Derby and Burton retiring as a Major after 37 years with the RAOC. Douglas Hanson was another RAOC survivor from the Lancastria, having spend nine months at the MT depot at Nantes. 

After Dunkirk

The British Army that returned from France was exhausted, dispirited and no longer mechanised in any real sense. The stark reality in the summer of 1940 was that at some point Hitler would invade these islands. Accordingly the Army set up, within what was really a peace time structure of area Commands, a Home Army alongside a vital anti-aircraft command. By July 1940 by hook or by crook some five divisions had been re-equipped by the small largely civilian manned Ordnance Depots within each area Command. These were  supported by the then five existing Central Ordnance Depots. In addition to Chilwell, there were depots dating from the Great War at Woolwich (armaments), Bramley (ammunition), Weedon (small arms) and Didcot (clothing and general stores).

“God, what a war!” he said. “There’s always some blasted spare part missing and you can’t get a sausage out of anybody urgently! It was different when we only had rifles”  This complaint by a staff captain comes in JK Stamford’s account of the Dunkirk evacuation and states the underlying problem with stark clarity. The older depots were still organised largely as if they had ‘only rifles’, whereas they were trying to handle an ever increasing range of items. The requirements of an army of the 1940’s were different but nothing like as complex as they would become by 1945. 

It was clear to Bill Williams, who by then have been given full charge of the Depots (other than clothing and general stores) as Director of Warlike Stores, and to those around him that the end of the war would come only with a return to France on a massive scale. In the days and months following Dunkirk this must have become more an article of faith than a realistic proposition. Yet it was a target and something to plan for. 

An invasion on a massive scale would demand vehicles, armaments and equipment in an unprecedented number, but, unlike the BEF, effectively supplied and supported. This would take time and, in the build up, effective storage would be needed. The existing Ordnance depots dated back to before the Great War and so new space was needed. It was needed also since the war of the mid twentieth century would need supplies wholly different from the wars of the past.

The key impact on the RAOC of the Dunkirk evacuation and the experience of the BEF had been first and most obviously a sickening return to where they had been over year earlier desperately short of everything. In the aftermath of Dunkirk, Winston Churchill writes in his account of the war that he contacted President Roosevelt who immediately made US ordnance reserves available. Yet none of this came free and the British government had to part with its fast diminishing reserves of dollars and gold. This remained that case until Roosevelt achieved the passage of the Lend-Lease act in March 1941. 

One more immediate result of this piecemeal arrangement for supplies from the US was a huge variety of different makes and models of equipment. Add to this the consequences of the separate UK motor companies developing their competing models each with their own set of spare parts and that, after Dunkirk, the fact that the vehicles that could be obtained relatively quickly were an even greater variety: the RAOC was faced with a store man’s nightmare.


So, it wasn't just about volume, it was about hundreds of thousands of parts which make up the volume. Official accounts all talk about the tons of stores held or issued and the picture conjured is of bails or crates of bulk. Truly the devil is in the detail explaining another of Bill’s favoured saying, a place for everything and everything in its place. The task was to set up an organisation which could estimate what needed to be ordered, order it, receive it, check it, store it, issue it and then maintain it.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The Beginning

Had you been a passenger on the omnibus from Nottingham railway station to the little village of Chilwell on a wet November morning in 1934, you may have seen a tall, heavily built soldier fidgeting as he sat, his eyes scanning all that passed, one cigarette lighting the next. In his pocket was the letter from the War Office instructing him to visit the site of a former shell filling factory. In his mind were wild imaginings, a fully mechanised army light years from that which he had experienced in the four long years of the Great War. He could hardly believe it; he had been asked to see whether the site could be right for the first Royal Army Ordnance Corps Depot specifically for motor transport and, if so, how he would create it.

In the late 1920’s the War Office had begun to explore just what a mechanised army might look like by setting up an experimental armoured force, however with the depression this came to nothing. During the depression, as government sought to conserve resources and set its face against re-armament, the Royal Army Ordnance Corps had suffered more than most. It was the cinderella of the army and it is probably safe to say that it was regarded as a corps of store-men, never to confront an enemy and seldom to leave the safety of the warehouse. This was reflected in the staffing which was overwhelmingly civilian, and even the soldiers were not regarded as combatant troops: pen-pushers, little more. If the Corps itself had suffered, so too had its equipment: there were no more than 4,000 vehicles for the whole Army and most of those old and unreliable and with few in the Corps able to maintain them; it had only 25 drivers. Now things were going to change.